Eight years ago, writer/composer/
lyricist Shirley Barasch set out to create
a musical based on Mary Shelley’s most famous work, “Frankenstein.” What could make better theater than the classic story of the scientist and the creature to whom he gave life?
Turns out, the life of Mary Shelley herself.
“Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein,” presented by the Tuesday Musical Club, and premiering at the New Hazlett Theater Wednesday, Nov. 12, is a bit of a departure for its author, whose past musicals, including “The Emperor’s Nightingale” and “Alice in Wonderland” were more child-friendly.
“This is not recommended for anyone under ninth grade,” said Barasch, former director of music and fine arts and chair of the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University.
Although Barasch has written many other plays for adults, this is only her second adult musical. Her first was composed in 1963 for Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh Chapter’s Jubilee Celebration, and featured an all-female cast of 75 performers.
“Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein,” through
dialogue and music, tells the story of the author while she is writing “Frankenstein.” Based on diaries, personal accounts and historical analyses, the drama shows how Mary Shelley’s own relationship and
personal challenges shaped her novel.
The show is a “complete music drama. It’s a cross between an opera and a play. It’s a play with lots of songs,” Barasch said.
The genesis of “Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein” began in 1998 when Ron Lindblom, then the new chair of Point Park’s conservatory, asked Barasch to look through a stack of children’s plays to find one to produce.
“The first one I came across was “Frankenstein,” said Barasch. “It was so bad. I said, ‘I can do better than that.’ Ron said, ‘Go ahead.’ ’’
Intending to create her own play based on Shelley’s novel, Barasch decided she should do a bit of research about the author to get some perspective.
“Once I read her history, I was hooked,” Barasch said. “I decided the story that needed to be told was about Mary Shelley.”
Barasch explained that Shelley was “very much like a woman of today, like a single mother raising a child.”
“It’s an amazing story,” Barasch continued. “She ran away with Percy Shelley while he was still married to another woman. She had already lost two children, and had a third baby. She married Percy Shelley after his wife committed suicide.”
Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein” when she was only 19 years old, and became a widow at the age of 24 when her husband drowned in a boating accident in Italy.
Barasch believes that part of the inspiration for “Frankenstein” came from a three-week period of time when Mary Shelley visited the famous Frankenstein castle in Germany. “There are three weeks missing from her diary (at that time). They were torn out. The trip became a nightmare. They were frightened by some young boys while there. She (Mary Shelley) began to have nightmares and put it on the printed page.”
Barasch noted that “Frankenstein” is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, and believes that Shelley based her character of Dr. Frankenstein on her husband, who “experimented with the principals of life-giving and artificial life.”
Founded in 1889, the Tuesday Musical Club, which is producing the show, is a small non-profit arts organization that provides free, daytime public concerts of classical music and scholarships for music students.
“There are 22 people in the cast, and the
production team is
phenomenal,” said Barasch. “Everybody is pulling together for this project.”
Barasch said that she was particularly pleased by the response of the young performers to her music.
“I’m 75. I’m not a baby. I thought they wouldn’t like my music. But they are crazy for the music. They want to sing it and dance to it. That’s really great.”
Rather than slowing down, this Jewish grandmother seems to have found a new passion. “I fell in love with the historical genre,” Barasch said. And she has a few new projects in the works, including a two-person musical about Winston Churchill.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at